“I know what sex is!” I told my parents from the back seat of our Ford Fiesta, aged 7. They looked at one another and asked me to elaborate. “A man and a woman go under the covers and kiss”. Age 9 my naivety was shattered as two classmates read the encyclopedia aloud to me “insertion of the penis…”. I was shook and went home and told my Mum the big, terrifying news. Age 11, we had our first official sex education talk – part one of two spread over two years. Many questions were met with, “that will be answered next year”. So much mystery and secrecy. Age 15 was a slideshow of STIs, a demonstration of condom application and an open Q&A – “Why can’t men wear two condoms?”. Afterwards we told our teacher we should have received the lesson sooner. She was shocked and somewhat horrified.
What effect does this disjointed and limited teaching of sex education have on our perceptions of sex? Sex is only to be spoken of on occasion and in certain contexts? Sex is procreation and STIs? Does this breed taboo and shame? Must young people find out for themselves? If so, how? Literature? Film? Porn? Peers? Experience? If sex is procreation and STIs, then what is intimacy, have you heard of pleasure, who is there to talk to if you find yourself faced with dysfunction and when will education span beyond heterosexual sex?
Does early education equal sex mania and teenage pregnancies? People recall their first crush as young as 3 years of age. Puberty begins as early as 9 years old. Teenagers discover masturbation before the legal age of sexual activity. If attraction, puberty and pleasure all happen before the age of 18 then why aren’t we providing adequate relationship and sex education?
A government review carried out in Ireland between 2018 to 2019 found relationship and sexuality education (RSE) to be “poor” and “inadequate”, with a focus on abstinence and risks such as STIs and teenage pregnancy. Student respondents highlighted a desire to learn about feelings, relationships, diverse family structures, sexual orientation, gender identities, consent, managing teenage pregnancy, and the impact of porn and the digital age on relationships and sex. Student respondents also highlighted the need to normalise talking about sex by having regular RSE classes and a shift away from risk orientated teachings towards honest discussions on the pressure associated with sexual activity and where to go when they need advice. In response to this review the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA) has produced a timeline of key actions to improve RSE in Ireland, from the beginning of 2020 to the end of 2022. When speaking to a representative of the NCCA regarding an update on the success of this proposed timeline, I was informed the groups established to oversee the production of initial interim guidance have yet to meet secondary to Covid-19 but was assured that drafts are being compiled for presentation once public health advice allows. The NCCA hopes to publish some guidance materials to support the teaching of RSE before the end of 2020. Although this pace is not as pro-active as the situation requires it is statutory acknowledgment of the need for change.
England, where I live now, is not far ahead as it has taken 20 years for the English Department of Education to review relationships and sex education. Relationship education will now address the cultivation of positive, safe relationships as well as recognising unhealthy relationships at primary school level. The curriculum at secondary school level will build on this incorporating relationship and sex education, addressing the development of intimate relationships, respect, commitment, boundaries, consent, safety online, contraception, sexual health, sexuality and gender identity, with the aim to inspire maturity, confidence, self-esteem and understanding. This updated curriculum is set to be rolled out in September 2020, but what about those of us that have long surpassed such formal education?
A history of restricted relationships and sex education has cultivated taboo culture around sex and relationships for the modern-day adult. How do we shake the shame? If your friends and loved ones are not ready to speak then find platforms that do. Read a book – #Love by Trish Murphy, listen to a podcast – How Cum with Remy Kassimir, watch a documentary – Sex Explained or a series – Sex Education. Acknowledge any reservation, question its origin and embrace the possibility of change. “The world as we have created it is a process of our thinking. It cannot be changed without changing our thinking”, – Albert Einstein.
Withholding education doesn’t eliminate curiosity. Children and teenagers will open books (encyclopaedias in my case), watch films and porn, ask older siblings and peers and experience sex for themselves. The adults of today need to set an example. Not talking about it won’t silence it. Not addressing it won’t make it disappear. It will breed shame, uncertainty, discomfort and insecurity. Education by nature is enlightening, empowering and liberating. Whether you are a teacher, colleague, parent, grandparent, partner or friend – Let’s talk about sex.
By Orla Friel
Give this article a rating below!